One immediately grasps the keenness of Court’s stylistic approach from its opening scenes, wherein the camera generally remains stationary as it observes the action happening therein from a distance. Yet each shot seems to begin or end with an extra beat in order to convey a more vibrant sense of life happening outside of the main action. Such is the broader dramatic intentions of writer-director Chaitanya Tamhane throughout his debut feature. Though a court case provides the film’s central narrative, Tamhane also includes more intimate scenes featuring some of the major characters. Far from being extraneous detours, however, these scenes allow the film to expand into a wider-ranging societal mosaic.
Tamhane’s grand canvas is Indian society as represented by its legal system, and what it reveals is none too flattering. The plot involves an activist poet, Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar), who, during a public performance, is arrested on what are soon revealed to be trumped-up charges of indirectly abetting the alleged suicide of a sewer worker after he supposedly heard a song of Kamble’s which implored people like him to kill themselves—and in a manner similar to the way he died. The charges stem from outdated laws that the Indian government has apparently not seen fit to either revise or repeal altogether. While Kamble’s lawyer, Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber), argues for the reconsideration of such laws, the public prosecutor, Nutan (Geetanjali Kulkarni), sticks pedantically to the letter of these laws, betraying no impulse to question them in the first place. Thanks in part to this kind of procedural rigidity, the legal back and forth ends up being dragged out over the span of many months.
Court, however, probes deeper than merely exposing the flaws of a country’s judicial system. This is where those character-building detours are crucial. A lunch scene with Vinay and his parents implies much about the generational gap between the progressive young single lawyer and his more-tradition-bound parents, especially when it comes to love and marriage (naturally, his parents are more concerned about having grandchildren than he is at the moment). The contrast between Vinay’s lifestyle and that of his legal opponent is even more telling: While Vinay, for all his political activism, lives in a comfortably upper-class background, Nutan is squarely part of the working class, possibly without the upbringing to imagine a way of thinking beyond her immediate daily concerns of caring for her family. Furthermore, an ostensibly comic theatrical performance to which Nutan takes her family in one scene implies a vicious strain of anti-immigrant sentiment running throughout India’s working class—perhaps the kind of sentiment that Kamble is constantly fighting against in his public performances.
Instead of turning the material into an angry brimstone-and-fire polemic, Tamhane surveys these flawed characters and troubled institutions with a coolly dissecting eye. Court, in fact, often exudes the aura of a legal brief: Each scene makes the points it wants to make, clearly and economically, before moving on to the next. But Tamhane’s acute feel for naturalism and remarkably subtle and non-declarative grasp of characterization negate any sense of a mere pile-up of talking points. All Tamhane needs to show us is Vinay listening to jazz in his car and dozing off alone in his relatively lavish apartment for us to grasp the man’s well-off circumstances, especially in stark contrast to the slum he visits in order to try to track down the dead sewer worker’s relatives. Tamhane purposefully extends scenes a bit longer than one would expect in order to include a seemingly unrelated detail that nevertheless adds an extra layer to the film’s overall societal critique. One such moment especially stands out in the memory: After the Kamble case has adjourned for the day, we see a subsequent court proceeding that the judge cuts short simply because the plaintiff’s wife’s attire isn’t appropriate for the venue. This isn’t a throwaway moment, but part and parcel of a startlingly clear-eyed and multifaceted vision of a society that remains damagingly mired in outmoded traditions.